Historic Rowing Regatta's 200th Anniversary - My Visit to St. John's, Newfoundland

by Richard MacFarlane

What rowing regatta is the most historic in Canada, in North America, perhaps the world? The Royal St. John's Regatta. This rowing spectacle predates the Oxford-Cambridge boat race (1829) and the Henley Royal Regatta in England (1839). It is known for many crew successes, especially the 1901 Outer Cove Fisherman's crew.

Established in 1818, this regatta is unique in many ways. Rather than using the sliding seat, competitors do fixed seat rowing. Rather than using eight sweep oars, they use only six. And rather than rowing straight down the course to the finish line, athletes row to the half-way point, then turn, and row back to the start line.  

As a rowing historian for 40 years, I simply had to see this regatta.

  Richard attends the 200th Anniversary Royal St. John's Regatta, August 1, 2018

Richard attends the 200th Anniversary Royal St. John's Regatta, August 1, 2018

St. John's was packed with visitors. After all, this was the 200th anniversary of the regatta.

The tradition is that the whole city of St. John's shuts down. It feels like a national holiday. In fact, it is a civic holiday unlike any other. The stores are closed, businesses locked up. This is Regatta Day, and everyone from St. John's and surrounding communities shows up to cheer their rowing teams.

Dawn arrived with fevered anticipation. It was Wednesday August 1st. The regatta committee convened, early morning, as they have done for 200 years, August 1st, to check the weather forecast. If the conditions are favourable, the regatta proceeds. If the weather is nasty, they delay the regatta, day after day, until the lake calms down and they have sunny skies.

No delay this time.  It was a beautiful clear sunny sky. The temperature was 27 celsius, and the water was calm. Hardly a ripple on the lake by 9:00 a.m. Perfect rowing conditions.

Striding along Quidi Vidi Road, approaching the shoreline, I heard and felt the immense crowds, the shouts, the laughter, and excitement. It wasn't just about rowers. It was a carnival atmosphere as exhibition booths offered all kinds of games, candy floss, and toys for young children. Chip trucks and vendor food stations offered a variety of beverages and burgers, fish specials, and fries. Everyone was in a happy mood. Families were strolling with children in tow. Hugs and kisses to winning crews, iPhones at the ready, for that precious photo of your son or daughter, your mother or father (masters level), and champions, all ages, rowing and racing all day.

It is said there were upwards of 45,000 spectators watching this fixed seat racing, more than the usual crowd. And many more crews racing, over 150, twice the normal amount.

This regatta also has the shot gun fired at the start and finish of each race. In Ontario, the shot gun is no more, the rifle crack that brought tingles up my spine since I started racing in 1973. We have the horn.

A women's crew from Toronto won a race. Another crew, so they said, travelled all over the world, competing at various regattas, and made a stop to participate at this historic event.

In 1993, the "Royal" designation of this regatta, Royal St. John's Regatta, was granted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The Queen visited this event in 1978 and the annual August 1st date was moved to July 27th to accommodate her schedule.

The women and men row in wider hull wooden boats than the sleek and narrow rowing shells associated with sliding seats and carbon fibre.  Port and starboard had three oarlocks each, fixed to the gunnels. White cushion seats were indeed fixed. With a little help from grease, each rower slid to the front edge of the seat, then to the back edge, having at least one third of a sliding run in their rowing strokes. So the rowers aren't as rigidly fixed as I first thought.

The varnished wooden boats have white lettered names, neatly written like calligraphy, such as The Henley, The Broker, Miss Tubular, Iceberg Gold, and Cougar Helicopters.

Under ideal conditions,  a women's crew that morning broke the record, with a superb time of 4 minutes, 56.1 seconds, breaking the old time standard, set in 2003, by six tenths of a second. It's pandemonium along the shore as spectators cry out victoriously, applaud and wave. It is a moment I soak up and it envelopes me. This is why I am here. This is my sport, my time, my love. It's magic on the water.

Incredibly, all rowers participate and enjoy rowing free of charge. They row for a sponsoring company or community.  Anaconda Mining, Tim Hortons, Rogers, Chevron, Sobeys, and Marine Atlantic are some sponsors of these races, equipment, and athletes. This is another unique aspect to this historic event. No one else in Canada that I know of, rows for free.

  200th Anniversary of the Royal St. John's Regatta, August 1, 2018.  Photo credit: FISA and World Rowing.

200th Anniversary of the Royal St. John's Regatta, August 1, 2018.  Photo credit: FISA and World Rowing.

A colourful history of this regatta has just been released in local shops and bookstores. Written by local historian, Jack Fitzgerald, "Regatta: A New History" is full of anecdotes, funny happenings, record races and, as in all sport, the great, the average, the bad, and the ugly. Yet still, this regatta perseveres. The community spirit shines through. St. John's  residents pull together, as one. The volunteers are revered.

My next destination is Harbour Grace, a historic town about one hour north of St. John's. My taxi picked me up and in the late afternoon, I arrive at Rothesay House Heritage Inn Bed and Breakfast.

  Rothesay House Heritage Inn Bed & Breakfast, Harbour Grace, Newfoundland

Rothesay House Heritage Inn Bed & Breakfast, Harbour Grace, Newfoundland

  Lynn and George Butler, wearing blue, celebrate with guests on their front porch

Lynn and George Butler, wearing blue, celebrate with guests on their front porch

The Rothesay proprietors, Lynn and George Butler, welcome me in very friendly and warm tones. "Wonderful to have you stay with us," George says. "Let me take your bag upstairs and show you to your room."  Maggie, their lovely cross Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever and Dachshund, already makes friends with me. She is the guest greeter as well and follows Lynn wherever she goes.

George regales me over the next five days about the history of Harbour Grace, the heritage of Rothesay House, the fishing industry, the locals in town.  I am a historian and a lover of heritage towns and so this is perfect for me. I soak up all of the stories, the architecture, the marine life, the fishermen tales of long ago.

I visit museums in Harbour Grace, Carbonear, and Brigus.  In May 1932, Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic from Harbour Grace to Ireland. Local pirate, Peter Easton, protecting the Newfoundland fishing fleet in the 17th century, made so much money, 2 million pounds of gold, he became the Marquis de Savoy, retiring in splendour, in southern France. From Brigus, Captain Robert Abram (Bob) Bartlett helped Rear Admiral Robert Peary, the American explorer, reach the North Pole in 1908.

Today, Newfoundland tourism attracts visitors from all over the world. Certainly, the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 on the World Trade Center, in New York, with planes diverted and landing in Gander, led to hundreds of enduring friendships with Newfoundlanders. Visitors are returning, year after year, to renew their loving ties to this wondrous land and its people. That United States disaster has accelerated the tourism dollar, for which Newfoundlanders are grateful.

My impressions of Newfoundland?  A huge, forested province. Miles of untouched land. Warm and friendly people, just as I witnessed in the Toronto theatre production, "Come From Away", which has sold out repeatedly. I saw and learned about residents whose lives are intertwined with discovery, pioneering exploits, fishing and the merchant industry, of trade and seagoing commerce. It's as postcard pretty as the colour pictures I've seen in newspapers, books, on television, and on line. The scenery is stunning. It's worth another visit or more, some day.

"You'll have to divide up Newfoundland, east and west.  Do one part one time, then the other, the next time," said Bill Luffman, my taxi driver.

How true.  I was sorry that I hadn't been here years ago.